Touching Lives - October 2009
Could anaesthetics save babies from brain damage at birth?
Researchers are investigating whether inhaling one or a mixture of two anaesthetics during childbirth can relieve labour pains, while also having the potential to protect babies from brain damage at birth.
The anaesthetics are called xenon and sevoflurane. Both of them are already being used safely to provide pain relief in other circumstances. Indeed xenon has been in use since the 1950s.
The type of brain damage in question results from a problem called birth asphyxia – when a baby is deprived of oxygen around the time of birth. The World Health Organisation estimates birth asphyxia to be the fifth largest cause of death in children under five. The condition also causes untold numbers of stillbirths. What’s more, around 20-40% of surviving babies go on to develop serious disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, epilepsy and learning disabilities.
The researchers, led by Dr Daqing Ma at Imperial College London, envisage that women could inhale the two anaesthetics during childbirth in much the same way as they breathe in the more traditional form of pain relief known commonly as ‘gas and air’. They are exploring the potential benefits of such treatment in the laboratory, to help pave the way for clinical trials.